My name is Mikkel Knudsen and today I weigh sixty-five kilograms. My heart rate at rest is forty-three beats per minute. Dr. Etxeberria is worried about this because I am usually in the mid-thirties. Maybe I am just nervous? I tell him that I have drunk some coffee not long ago. Coffee can elevate the heart rate, raise the pulse and push blood around the body faster. The difference in my heart rate this morning is probably down to the coffee.

I have been a professional racing cyclist for sixteen years. This means I do not get nervous before a race. I do not get nervous because I have seen it all before. The preparations: morning medical checks, warm-up ride, breakfast, bike examination with the mechanic – these things are all familiar to me, and it does not make sense to worry or feel nervous about familiar things. This is my job. It is probably the coffee.
Barriers close off the town’s central square and identification is needed to enter the pre-race enclosure. We move about between hoardings covered in advertising slogans. Our shoes are noisy on the cobblestones. The press are walking through the enclosure talking to the riders and picking up small interviews. They all want to talk to Chugnev, Larimer and Huygens. These are the three favourites to take the win today. They stand by an advertising backdrop and talk to the reporters, saying the same things over and over in different languages.
Mournier and Lasset, the two top local boys, are in demand too. Mournier is a tough kid who can climb. Lasset is a big sprinter. His nickname is Le Coude. Most do not like to be close to him at the finish but I do not mind. There are worse things in this sport than flailing elbows. Nobody will be upset if the French boys do not win, but they are expected to fight. They are expected to attack and get some coverage for their sponsors. I look down at the jersey I am wearing today. My team is named after a popular brand of yogurt. Should I or my teammates show well today, people may purchase more yogurt. That is the hope of the team sponsor.
The in-demand riders have queues of reporters wishing to speak with them but the journalists are happy to talk to anyone passing by and pick up some comments to edit into their highlights packages later on. Anyone passing by, except me. I recognise a reporter for Tipsbladet, the Danish sports paper. He catches my eye for a moment but turns and hurries away. I am not required to give a few words. He stops Jorgensen with a hand on the elbow and they speak briefly. Jorgensen is strong but will not amount to anything. You cannot get very far in this game without a brain.
Some things to say to the press if they ask: ‘It will be a tough day.’ ‘The pavé is always difficult.’ ‘I will ride hard and try to get into a breakaway.’ These words will not be necessary because I am no longer the kind of rider who says these things. The press do not approach me for a pre-race sound bite because it is a year today since my return to the peleton after serving a two-year ban for certain doping offences. I am bad publicity. I am not an advertisement for the sport, and a good deal of people would like to forget that I am here and that this is what I do for a living.
We are in Compiegne this morning for Paris-Roubaix – the queen of the spring classics. When it rains, the fields of northern France come down to meet the old cobbled roads and turn them to a muddy, uneven chute. We race through it. They call it l’enfer du Nord.
I heard the Dutchman, Theo de Rooij, talk about it once on television and he said it’s a bollocks, this race. You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping… it’s a pile of shit!
This is my ninth edition and I agree with these words. When the interviewer asked de Rooij would he ride Paris-Roubaix again he said sure he would, it’s the most beautiful race in the world. I do not agree with this. I ride the Hell of the North because I am paid to do so, but it really is a bollocks.
Technically, the doping offence I am guilty of is a ‘Therapeutic Use Exemption Irregularity.’ In cycling, you can use some doping products if you have a medical reason. If you suffer from asthma you can get a TUE for salbutamol. I held an exemption, but it ran out and I was late in getting it renewed. That is what they got me on. If they do not get you for one thing they get you for another.
The race starts and we roll out of Compiegne. It is early but many people have come out to cheer us on. Messages of support have been painted onto the tarmac of the roads we cycle over. ALLEZ MOURNIER. There are flags painted on the surface too, but I do not see a Danish one.
During the early kilometres I sit at the back of the peleton alongside Paul, my best friend in the sport. We have ridden together many times but today we are on different teams. I was sacked from Team-RLS once news of my ban broke. Standard procedure. A team will not employ a rider under a suspension. Paul says he feels good about the race today, but then he always says stuff like this. You just do not know with Paul. Nobody does.
The race is neutralised for the first twenty kilometres. We ride along at an easy pace and no one breaks off the front. This is the phony war where we try to chat to one another and gauge how the day might go. Everybody feels good today and is one to watch out for. That is what they are all saying. I am keeping quiet. Team leaders and their directeur sportifs are discussing tactics. I keep turning over the pedals.
There are several possible outcomes of a classic like Paris-Roubaix. Somebody could get away early on their own, before anyone is interested in chasing, and hold a gap all the way to the line. This is very unusual, but it can happen. I remember van der Meyde doing something like that one year. The peleton let him go early and a series of crashes slowed the pursuit. He rode like he never had before or has since and held on by a few hundred metres at the end. More likely there will be a breakaway early on which is caught and then a series of attacks on the difficult cobbled sections and the climbs. Somewhere in the last fifty kilometres or so these actions will force a selection, where the field is cut down to a smaller group of possible winners. Who gets out early is important, because it governs which teams must chase and if you have been chasing people down all day you will not have any legs left come the finish. Cycling is a team sport even if it does not feel like that sometimes.
As the race commissar waves his flag to signal the end of race neutralisation, a few of the boys jump away to form the first break. They are up out of the saddle hammering on the pedals and quickly open up a gap. One of my teammates and seven others are in the group that ride away down the road. This means I will not have to spend my morning chasing. I think about trying to jump across to them but decide against it. You do not want to be in the first break in a race like this; they will be brought back. Proper riders wait for their chance. LeMond would never have stormed away first thing.
The riders use codenames, and they are not imaginative ones. We are professional sportsmen, not criminals or spies. Some riders use a foreign version of their name, or the name of their dog. Some just use their initials. If I put my mind to it, I can recall some codenames: Daniel “DC” Cani, Andrei “Soyuz” Karpinen, Gaert “Regi” Martens. I remember these names but wish I did not. Some things are better forgotten.
It is important not to mix the blood. It is because of this the bags must be labelled and it would be incriminating to mark them with our real names.
The bags are flat and square, and made of heavy duty plastic. They hold five hundred millilitres each. The codenames are written on bags in permanent marker pen and then the blood is refrigerated. I am always worried about my bags, lying in the fridge. I am worried about the codename marked upon them and worried that someone who is not meant to know of these things may discover it.
But I am worried about the ink too. What happens if the ink seeps through, even the smallest bit of it, a thin residue of ink, and mixes with my blood? I have to put this blood back inside me and all the time it is just lying there, protected by this thin plastic membrane. At night I think about my bags and hope they are safe. I want to hold them to make sure, but they need to stay in the refrigerator at the correct temperature: four degrees Celsius.
Because I worry about these things more than most, it is my job to check the refrigerators and ensure everyone’s blood is stored correctly. I keep a pair of thermometers in the refrigerator in case one malfunctions. It is better to be safe.
On the first real cobbled section, I go down. I hate the pavé, it is a bollocks. I am unhurt but the fall buckles my front wheel. The team car is a long way back, and the neutral service vehicle is busy attending to some other, higher profile, crashes.
Cani (I rode with him at RLS) catches up with me from behind and stops when he sees me. He unhitches his front wheel and hands it to me. I do not know what he is doing. We are not even riding on the same team today, but there is no time to waste thinking about things. I take the wheel.
‘Come on, come on,’ he says and pushes me off and I work through the gears and push hard to catch up again.
After the bike change, I draft the team cars back into the peleton. Karpinen, another of my former teammates, paces me back to the bunch. I do not know what he is doing back here. He has not fallen and should be up front chasing.
We catch a young Spanish rider who has also fallen on the way. His shorts and jersey are ripped open all down one side and he has large cuts on his arm and face. He gets on my wheel but cannot hold our pace for long in his condition. Just before we drop him I think I hear him weeping quietly to himself.
The forest of Arenberg is the most difficult section of pavé and it is there the selection is made. A few of the strong men are in with a chance of victory and the rest will have to settle for getting home in one piece. Arenberg is tough. It is here that Stablinsky used to make his moves, and Museeuw fell so badly going through the forest road one year that he nearly lost his leg to gangrene.
Mournier goes first and his attack causes damage immediately as riders start falling from the main group. The remnants of the morning’s break are swept up and spat out the back almost straight away. All the contenders are still there however. I sit on Lasset’s wheel and let the big man shelter me from the wind. I do not have the strength to take a turn driving the pace at the front, but I can hang on. At least for now.
Chugnev is the next to jump away just as the road starts to climb. Lasset is after him and I am stuck to his wheel. Once somebody makes a move you had better react straight away or else they will be up the road and that is a problem. It is easier to stay aware and stick on the wheel when a move is made than to spend your day chasing gaps you have allowed to develop. Others mark Chugnev’s move and follow.
As we hit the cobbles again, Larimer attacks. The frame shudders as my bike pitches across the pavé. I turn over the pedals but the riders in front of me are pulling away. Men coming from behind catch and pass me. It all happens very quickly.
Maybe, if I gather my strength, I can make it back to them on the descent. Some calculated risks in the corners will make up time. It is what LeMond would do.
What you take out must go back in. Blood is cyclical. When it comes time to use them, the bags are smuggled to us. On a remote mountain road, half way during a stage race, the driver of the team bus stands with the engine cover open as if we have broken down. Inside we lie flat in a row along the aisle. The blood bags hang from the coat-hooks of the bus seats and from them the lines snake down and into us. Autologous transfusion.
I am terrified of sleeping afterwards because when my pulse slows down during the night the blood is so thick it is like ketchup running through me.
I never get back to that lead group. Perhaps a few years ago, before my little break, I may have been strong enough. Once you crack, that is it. Pack it in, get home in one piece. Rest, and race another day.
The peleton swallows me up and, with five or ten or twenty kilometres left, drops me out the back again. I soft-pedal home with the stragglers. A rider passes me a bidon without saying a word. The water is warm and stale but I drink anyway.
There are few supporters left lining the roads as we pass but they shout sporadic encouragements and remind us that, for most of us at least, there will be other days. It is difficult to make out exactly which riders are around me now; we are covered in a thin coating of grey mud and we all look the same. None of us speak above the chorus of laboured breathing. There is so much mud in this part of the world that it is no surprise we are bathed in the stuff.
Coming up to the last climb some of the boys unmount their bikes and abandon. I like to finish my races even when they go badly; there is something instructive about learning to suffer, something important about storing up pain.
On the climb, one of the remaining supporters spots me coming and spits on the road in my path.
‘Tricheur!’ the man shouts.
My front tyre runs through the spittle.
When I cross the line, Paul Huygens is already on the podium kissing the podium girls and holding aloft the Paris-Roubaix trophy. It is a giant granite cobblestone. I do not know how he has the strength left to lift it but some days you never know where Paul gets his strength from.
In the backseat of the team car, beside Dr. Etxeberria is a man I have not seen before. He is wearing a crisp white shirt and a pair of dark aviators.
The car door opens and Dr. Etxeberria steps onto the pavement. As he passes, he brushes the handlebars of my bike with his fingertips for a moment as if he wishes to clean away the mud of the roads from the machine.
‘A tough ride today,’ he says. ‘It’s always tough, the pavé.’ He drifts away from me slowly, walking in no particular direction.
The man wearing sunglasses leans around the door pillar and motions to me.
‘Please take a seat, Tyr,’ he says and I know what all of this is about.

Eamonn Bolger is from Dublin, Ireland but lives in Scotland, where he graduated with an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow in 2010. He has previously been published in "A Thousand Cranes: Scottish Writers for Japan", Southpaw Journal, 20x20 magazine and Wordlegs. He is currently working on a novel.